University of Connecticut (available on U21)

  • by Jenna Kirby

ConnecticutWhen I first arrived at the University of Connecticut, I felt completely  overwhelmed. An eight hour flight from London Heathrow to JFK,  followed by a dizzyingly exciting evening spent at a hotel just around the  corner from Times Square, then an early morning Megabus journey to  Storrs had completely exhausted me. The good news is that I ended up  sitting next to fellow exchange students on the bus who I still count as  some of my closest friends here.

The first week flew by in a haze of jet lag, meeting new people  and orientation. The weather was gorgeous (the first difference that hit  me!) so we spent a huge amount of time sunbathing by the lake on  campus. The UConn campus is beautiful, but totally different to  Birmingham’s red-brick-and-green-grass appearance. It is a ‘proper’  American college with all teaching and most residential buildings on  campus, as well as all the dining halls, the student union, all the sports  facilities, and a performing arts centre. Each student gets free unlimited  access to the gym, swimming pool, and all fitness classes, as well as  opportunities for discounted tickets for acts performing at the Jorgensen  centre – recently, Regina Spektor played on campus. SUBOG – the  Student Union Board of Governors – also organize trips for decent prices,  such as to Broadway shows in NYC, Knicks basketball games, and to  theme parks.

The UConn sports teams are of a pretty high standard.  Although basketball season hasn’t started yet, I’m excited to see the team  that I’ve heard so much about play. The women’s team has been  unbeaten in 80-ish games, and the basketball team at the London  Olympics was pretty much made up of UConn players. American Football  games are also an experience, like something straight out of a movie!  Thousands of students are taken to the stadium at Rentschler field in  yellow school buses and the effort with which Americans tailgate is pretty  impressive; fields of beer and BBQs stretch out all around the stadium.  The spectacle within the stadium is also incredible; cheerleaders, dance  teams, marching bands, fireworks, and chants that the entire stadium  joins in with.

The social life at UConn is very different to any UK university I’ve been  to. There are three bars on campus, but the heart of the American  college experience is in frat and house parties. Trust me, people do  actually drink out of red cups and do keg stands in real life!

In terms of college work, it rings true for pretty much all  American universities that there is more work to do throughout the  semester, but it of a much less difficult standard than at home. There are  usually readings, quizzes, midterms and finals for each class, but as long  as you attend classes and make an effort to keep up its fine. Participation  in class also makes up a percentage of your grade here, which at first was  a pretty intimidating thought, but American students are so happy  voicing their opinions that it soon feels natural to join in. The range of  classes here is also really impressive, and because the education system  is so different there is a lot more freedom in choosing classes and there  will be people in your classes who do a variety of different majors. The  American people themselves are a huge part of what has made this  experience so different. American people are generous and – contrary to popular opinion – polite. They will wait two minutes for you to catch up  so they can hold the door open for you; five people will jump in at once  to bless you if you sneeze in class. They are so friendly and outspoken,  and think nothing of stopping you in the street with: ‘Oh myyy God, do  you have an accent!?’. Being British here truly makes you feel like a  celebrity!

A huge majority of students at UConn live on campus in  dorms, with roommates. These will usually be set out on floors where  there are communal bathrooms and communal living areas. The rooms  are basically furnished with a bed, a wardrobe, a set of drawers, a desk  and a chair, yet these can all be moved around to make the room more  homely. I was terri?ed at the prospect of having a roommate before I  came out here, yet I was surprised about how quickly I got used to it.  Almost all college students in the US have roommates so it’s completely  normal, and it’s a great way to make a really close friend. Almost  everyone I know here is happy living with their roommate,and those that  weren’t were able to move rooms easily within the first couple of weeks.

Living in dorms on campus also includes a meal plan, which  gives students unlimited access to the nine dining halls around campus. I  was completely shocked by my first dining hall experience – there was so  much food! No wonder everyone was talking about the ‘freshman fifteen’.  However, there is a huge variety of food – both healthy and not so  healthy – and mealtimes each day are a really nice time to socialize with  everyone.

Connecticut is in a really good location in the United States,  making it really easy to travel around the country. Buses leave directly  from campus for New York City twice a day, for as little as $10 if you  book in advance. There are also buses that go to Boston regularly. From  here, you can travel across the country – I’ve got trips booked to  Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C, and plan to see as much of  the country as I can before I leave.

Unfortunately, I’ve also had the opportunity to try out the  American health care system since being here. I broke my ankle at a  football game and while I could go on about the good quality care, the  clean facilities, and the lack of queues in the waiting room, I still  wouldn’t recommend it! Although I found the whole health insurance  process confusing – having never even had to consider it before – the  International Office at UConn were really helpful and I managed to claim  back all of my expenses. It turns out that hobbling around campus with a  cast was another great talking point!

I waited until arriving on campus to organize my phone  contract and bank account. AT&T is one of the most widely used cell  phone providers in the US and they have a branch on campus. I was able  to get a monthly contract including 250 US minutes and unlimited texts  for $25 per month. There is also a People’s United Bank on campus and I  set up an account with them with ease. I’d recommend loading a travel  card with some money for the few days after arrival, to tide you over  before setting up an account. I have some friends who have been happy  using the Caxton FX card, a prepaid currency card that is easy to use and  has no charges.

If the universities that you are interested in provide the opportunity of becoming a U21 Ambassador – I think they include  Connecticut, the University of Virginia and the McGill – it’s definitely  worth applying for. If your application is successful after a written  application and interview, you are given a £1000 grant to represent the  University of Birmingham whilst you are abroad – so it’s great for the CV  too.  Most students are paying upwards of $20,000 a year to attend  this school, so getting the opportunity to come to UConn – or any  American university – for half the price of normal UK tuition fees is  pretty incredible! It is likely that you’ll never get such an opportunity  again and I can’t recommend it highly enough. This time a year ago,  when I was in your position, I was full of questions and anxieties about  the year abroad. But now, the best piece of advice I can give you is not to  worry so much. As long as you make an e?ort to get everything  organized in a timely manner, your year abroad will be one of the best  experiences of your life.

Jenna wrote her “UCONN” piece whilst in the States, but is now back at University of Birmingham.

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